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It (1927), a textbook example of Hollywood selling the sizzle and not the steak, is a sprightly little Cinderella comedy that eventually became a lightning rod for the wrath of the guardians of public morality not for what it actually is, but for what it represented - namely its new, between-the-wars liberation of women's energies that threatened to rewrite society's playbook. It cemented the stardom of Brooklyn-born Clara Bow, with her kewpie-doll lips, bobbed hair, and naughty, saucer eyes. She was the highest-wattage flapper of the Roaring '20s, although not here. In It, she's not so much a sex kitten as the kind of spunky working-girl hero with whom her female audiences had no trouble identifying -- fizzy, down to earth, warm-hearted. Morally pure, too, although the sexually aggressive one here. When her shop-girl named Betty Lou Spence gawks at the dapper heir of the department store behind whose lingerie counter she works (Antonio Moreno), she says, with the help of a title card, "Sweet Santa, give me him."
The titular It is more than amply provided by Elinor Glyn, the British born writer of best-selling female erotic fiction, whose career took off after she described a close encounter on a tiger skin in her 1907 novel, Three Weeks. She was an expert at packaging a genteel brand of scandal-tinged sex. She was also a born self-marketer. By 1920, she was working as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, which has always reveled in being told how vulgar it is, especially in a British accent. She thus became as well a social arbiter, dispensing judgments like confetti at dinner parties given by her friends, William Hearst and Marion Davies. She appeared in several film cameos, was billed as Madame Elinor Glyn, and even directed a couple of films before the decade was out. In short, she was pure Hollywood.
Glyn's stock rose when she boosted the careers of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino in Beyond the Rocks (1922). She's all over It, as author, producer and -- making a regal entrance down a nightclub staircase as Bow ogles her longed-for boss -- defining presence. Paramount paid Glyn $50,000 to endorse It, and she visibly enjoys her work. Explaining that charisma is what turns mere sex appeal into It, she grandly adds that "self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not" are part of the mix, too. Not that audiences hadn't been told up front by title cards: "IT is that quality possessed by some which draws all others by its magnetic force. The possessor of IT must be absolutely un-self-conscious. With IT, you own all men if you are a woman - and all women if you are a man. IT can be a quality of mind as well as a physical attraction." Not that Bow's heroine, merrily on the make, is at all indifferent.
In the film, the product placement even extends to a scene in which the department store kingpin's airhead playboy pal (William Austin) explains It by reading from an article by Glyn from Hearst's Cosmopolitan magazine! Against the odds, Glyn makes her dowager empress cameo work by insinuating, with a mischievous look in her condescending eye, that she knows what an old fraud she's being and is enjoying every moment of it. Which means we do, too. So much for Hollywood royalty.
Certainly you never feel while watching It that Bow takes the film, its title, or herself, too seriously. Nor does she just stand around exuding It. She's too busy charming us, starting when she enlists the aid of her down-at-heel girlfriend in recutting a demure shop-girl's frock into a plunging-necklined number befitting her dinner date at the Ritz with Austin's wet noodle pal. Later, when she uses him as entre to her love object's yachting party, she raises everyone's spirits by playing a ukulele before eventually diving overboard to rescue her romantic rival, we realize the film is launching more than a new kind of heroine. It's helping hatch as well the screwball comedies of the next decade, with their irrepressible women upending slightly stuffy and usually well-heeled men. Bow's high spirits are the film's motor here. She's fun.
It is also the last film - his 26th -- in which Gary Cooper appeared unbilled. He's seen in two scenes as a newspaper reporter responding to a commotion at Betty's flat, arising from her fierce refusal to hand a baby over to a welfare worker. Hanging in the doorway, personifying furtive aggressiveness, he mistakenly assumes the baby is Betty's (it's her unemployed girlfriend's), reports it as such and launches the string of misunderstandings that must be untangled before the swim rescue. Bow, who tended toward the candid and unpretentious, never made a secret of her sexual appetites - which didn't help later on when the censors came censoring. She and Cooper were linked romantically. Two films later, Cooper starred opposite Bow in the now forgotten Children of Divorce (1927). He never looked back. Nor did she, but only for a few more years.
Bow's Betty offers only the smallest of threats to a paternalistic power structure threatened by the advent of a new kind of woman they couldn't as readily control and on which their own daughters were modeling themselves. In It, there is never a question of Betty Lou's moral purity after her boss, believing her to be an unwed mother, offers her the chance to be his mistress. Hurt and angry, she replies, "Are you trying to offer me one of those left-handed arrangements?" and storms out. At the end, you feel she's too good for the narrow, puritanical, judgmental society into which she wants to marry. Of course, by the time Bow starred in yet another film more innocent than it sounds, Dorothy Arzner's The Wild Party (1929), she was pinned to the wall, in the line of censors' fire, including Hollywood's pre-emptive self-censorship administered by its hired gun, former Harding administration stalwart Will Hays. She had become the poster girl for Jazz Age decadence, however playful. No less than Louise Brooks, she personified female sex rampant. It's a tossup whether that or her heavy Brooklyn accent did more to torpedo her career as films moved into the sound era and the Production Code.
Producers: Clarence Badger, Elinor Glyn
Director: Clarence G. Badger; Josef von Sternberg (uncredited)
Screenplay: Elinor Glyn (novel, adaptation); Hope Loring, Louis D. Lighton (writer); George Marion, Jr. (titles); Frederica Sagor (uncredited)
Cinematography: H. Kinley Martin
Film Editing: E. Lloyd Sheldon
Cast: Clara Bow (Betty Lou Spence), Antonio Moreno (Cyrus Waltham Jr.), William Austin (Monty Montgomery), Priscilla Bonner (Molly), Jacqueline Gadsden (Adela Van Norman), Julia Swayne Gordon (Mrs. Van Norman), Madame Elinor Glyn (Herself), Gary Cooper (Newspaper Reporter, uncredited), Lloyd Corrigan (Yacht Cabin Boy, uncredited), Eleanor Lawson (First Welfare Worker, uncredited), Rose Tapley (Second Welfare Worker, uncredited).
by Jay Carr
Variety review, February 9, 1927
Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild, by David Stenn, Penguin
Coop: The Life and Legend of Gary Cooper, by Stuart Kaminsky, St. Martin's Press
The Films of Gary Cooper, by Homer Dickens, Citadel Press
The Oxford History of World Cinema: Censorship and Self-Regulation, by Richard Maltby